FORT ASSINIBOINE - This year’s two weekend presentations of the Journey to Bethlehem in Fort Assiniboine was hugely successful with 1,100 people experiencing the live nativity pageant.
One of the organizers of the event, Margaret Attrill of Barrhead, said it was not quite as high as the record set a few years ago, but they are still very happy with the results.
This was the 21st year the Fort Assiniboine and Friends Christian Community have staged the interactive outdoor pageant in November, which tells the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago.
Organizers say that over the years many families have made it a part of their Christmas tradition. While most who come to take in the Journey are local, some come from many miles away. Some are visitors with family and friends from other parts of Canada and even other countries.
Organizers say from comments heard and comments written, all have been pleased to be a part of this unique dramatic presentation.
Groups of eight or 10 people at a time are taken through the journey as a “family” by Rachel (all of the guides are Rachel) on their way to Bethlehem to pay their taxes to Rome, as emperor Caesar has declared.
Each “family” starts out from the little Catholic church at the west end of the hamlet of Fort Assiniboine. As they step through the doors, a Rabbi tells them of what they can expect to encounter on their way to Bethlehem to pay their taxes.
At each stop is another experience. First, they meet up with some rather fierce Roman soldiers, Then they pass a prophet, who tells of the coming of Jesus.
Next are the shepherds, watching their sheep who tell of strange things happening, and another who is looking for his lost sheep.
On the family goes, seeking shelter for the night, but at the Inn, the innkeeper tells them there is no room, and they may not find any in Bethlehem. Paying the taxpayer the head tax that has been declared by Rome on each family is another of those rough experiences.
With not enough money, Rachel pleads with the stern collector, who finally lets them go on, past angels singing, and then stop at a manger where a bright star is shining overhead. Inside, along with a donkey and sheep, they behold the baby Jesus and his parents, Joseph and Mary.
After seeing this miracle, the family continues on, searching for a place for the night, and tell very uninterested vendor ladies of the miracle they have just seen.
At the last stop they encounter the three wise men seeking Jesus and tell them where He can be found. At the journey’s end, the family comes back to the 21st century, and into the warmth and comfort of the Fort Museum, where they can visit and enjoy coffee, juice and snacks before heading on home.
It takes a lot of effort each year to organize and prepare as the cast and crew numbers around 100. There are all the props to set up, shelters to be put in place, animals to bring in, those who set out the snacks and refreshments.
It’s all volunteer, with some taking part one or two nights and others every night. Many help out year after year, and a few have been involved in all 21. But for all, it is a labour of love.
There is no admission, but donations are gratefully accepted and are used to cover costs of things like the hall rental and other incidentals. The remainder is sent to Christian Blind Mission International.
How did it all start back in 1999?
Catherine Ann Prociuk and her husband Jemy have been involved since the beginning. She said, Jack and Joyce Tipping, the founders of Angel Valley Retreat west of Fort Assiniboine, were the ones who got it started.
Their daughter Pam lived in Stoveville, Ont., and a woman at Christian Blind Mission International there wrote a play called Bethlehem Live.
The Tippings visited there in the summer, but never got to see the play so they asked their daughter to send a video and the script.
“It started off with three couples and then five that worked at putting it on initially,” she said. “We did it two Sunday nights in a row at the end of November, beginning of December.”
And that was how the Journey to Bethlehem was born.
Prociuk said initially, they managed to put together this little play with about 80 people and had no idea what we were getting into.
“We had no idea it was going to continue on. But from there, people just wanted to continue to do it.”
The props were pretty crude at the start, with tents and the manger was basically an open calf shelter.
She said Mary and the baby would stay in a warm van there and jump out when each “family” group came along.
Gradually, over the years, with generous donations from area businesses, churches and individuals, improvements were made to the props, including the costumes, and it has all evolved to the very smooth and realistic presentation.
It continues to be all volunteers from basically the Fort Assiniboine and Barrhead areas and groups of people look after the advertising, costumes, cast, food and the props.
“Really, nobody has a more beautiful setting than Fort Assiniboine. I think our setting is beautiful,” said Catherine Ann.
Initially they pondered whether they would charge, but they decided against it.
“We’ve done it on donations ever since. Everybody’s donated time, everybody’s donated talents, machinery, equipment and funds.
“Over the years, business, individuals and church groups have been invaluable in the development of this Christian inter-denominational production.”
The buildings used today are mobile buildings, moved on and off the property each year, and the costumes have developed over the years as well. One woman has done all the sewing of the costumes for the past 20 years, she says.
“She produced a wonderful wardrobe.”